Trump's New Red Scare

With reelection looming and his wall all but defeated, the president sees a convenient political target on the left.

Donald Trump speaks in front of a Venezuelan flag.
Donald Trump speaks in front of a Venezuelan flag. (Kevin Lamarque / Reuters)

There are a lot of people talking about socialism these days. Senator Bernie Sanders, who on Tuesday launched a bid for the Democratic nomination for president, calls himself a democratic socialist, and so does Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Public intellectuals are debating the label anew. And then there’s the most high-profile participant in the discussion: Donald Trump.

The president, of course, is not a proponent. But he has moved “socialism” to the center of his lexicon in February, deploying it in discussions of foreign policy as a weapon against domestic political opponents. He does so at a time when his political messaging has faltered and when the left wing is more energized than it has been in generations. How successful Trump’s attempt to revive an old but often successful line of attack is will be an important test, both for his reelection hopes and for the future of socialist ideas in this country.

On Monday, Trump spoke to Venezuelan Americans in Miami, discussing the effort by the U.S., European nations, and some Latin American countries to push President Nicolas Maduro out of power.

“Socialism promises prosperity, but it delivers poverty,” Trump said. “Socialism promises unity, but it delivers hatred and it delivers division. Socialism promises a better future, but it always returns to the darkest chapters of the past. That never fails. It always happens. Socialism is a sad and discredited ideology rooted in the total ignorance of history and human nature, which is why socialism, eventually, must always give rise to tyranny, which it does.”

The remarks echoed comments in his State of the Union, when the president tied socialism more directly to U.S. politics.

“We stand with the Venezuelan people in their noble quest for freedom, and we condemn the brutality of the Maduro regime, whose socialist policies have turned that nation from being the wealthiest in South America into a state of abject poverty and despair,” Trump said at the time. “Here in the United States, we are alarmed by the new calls to adopt socialism in our country. America was founded on liberty and independence, and not government coercion, domination, and control. We are born free and we will stay free. Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country.”

And on Tuesday, the Trump reelection campaign greeted Sanders’s entry into the presidential race with a backhanded compliment: “Bernie Sanders has already won the debate in the Democrat primary, because every candidate is embracing his brand of socialism. But the American people will reject an agenda of sky-high tax rates, government-run health care and coddling dictators like those in Venezuela.”

Trump has ample reason to be searching for a new political target. His wall is as good as dead. Even if last week’s controversial emergency declaration succeeds, it will do so only after months or years of court battles, and will produce less than 250 miles of construction. His attempts to use House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as a foil have proved fruitless.

Thus his turn to socialism, a tried-and-true bogeyman in American politics. Trump equating the failure of the Chavista state in Venezuela with the European-style reforms proposed by Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez, and others is dishonest. There’s room to criticize proposals like Medicare for all and free college tuition as unrealistic or unwise without hyperbole. Trump and his allies have also offered exaggerated, inaccurate descriptions of the Green New Deal. This is hardly a concern for Trump, who’s built his business and political careers on exaggeration.

Though it feels like a Cold War throwback, the socialism epithet might be effective. It could resonate with a wider swath of the public than some of Trump’s other signature lines. The border wall, for example, is unpopular with Americans overall, though very popular with the president’s core supporters. By contrast, voter antipathy toward socialism is much broader: In a February Fox News poll, 59 percent of Americans held an unfavorable view. As of 2015, half of Americans said they wouldn’t vote for a socialist (though only 38 percent of Democrats held that view).

Some Republican politicians and conservative outlets worked extensively to paint former President Barack Obama as a socialist during his presidency, with mixed results. They were unable to prevent Obama’s reelection but may have circumscribed his ability to enact policies; claims of socialism dogged the market-based Affordable Care Act for years, and its standing only improved when the GOP began to attempt repeal. (Some libertarians have complained that Trump’s own policies, from tariffs to farm subsidies to intervention in corporate decisions, constitute their own form of creeping socialism.)

Trump’s cries of socialism are in large part about his reelection campaign. Trump reportedly fears a challenge by a moderate Democrat like Joe Biden most, while he’d be happy to have a chance to run against a more liberal candidate he could claim is a socialist. Some Democratic contenders for the presidency have taken pains to distance themselves from Sanders. “I will tell you I am not a democratic socialist,” Senator Kamala Harris told a crowd in New Hampshire on Monday. Even Senator Elizabeth Warren, whose views seem fairly close to Sanders’s in some areas, has insisted she is “capitalist to the bone.”

Politicians like Harris and Warren may see this positioning as important to their chances in a general election, but it’s not clear that being labeled a socialist is a risk within the Democratic Party. As I have written, and as new data from Gallup confirms, Democrats have moved steadily leftward in ideology in recent years. Gallup found in August that while 57 percent of Democrats view socialism positively, only 47 percent have a positive view of capitalism—a steep drop since 2010.

Yet there are reasons to doubt that Trump can get very far by crying Bolshevik, too, even in a general election. Though Republicans are still sour on socialism, its stock continues to rise overall in polling. Among voters ages 18 to 29, socialism draws more support (51 percent) than capitalism (45 percent). Meanwhile, the meaning of the word has evolved. Once associated with government control of businesses, it’s now more likely to be taken to mean equality in rights and distribution of wealth, according to Gallup—in other words, Americans now think of socialism more as Sanders- (or European-) style social welfare than Venezuelan-style nationalization of companies.

But you don’t have to just read between the polling toplines to guess whether the message will work. There’s recent history on the campaign trail, and it’s not especially encouraging for Trump. During the 2016 Democratic primary, Clinton attacked Sanders as a socialist, arguing that Danish-style government programs wouldn’t work in the U.S. That line of attack didn’t make much dent in Sanders’s standing, and in fact the party has moved closer to him since the election. (In what might be a warning to Harris and Warren, Clinton has more recently said she thinks that claiming the capitalist label actually hurt her in the Democratic primary.)

Trump, too, has tried the S-word before. It was a staple of his stump speeches late in the 2018 midterm elections, which culminated in a decisive defeat for Trump’s Republican allies. Suddenly, “socialism” disappeared from Trump’s public comments, cropping up again only this month, and in parallel with the Venezuela crisis. It’s impossible to say whether Trump will continue to talk about socialism or lose interest in it again, as he has lost interest in some previous obsessions.

Moreover, there’s a tendency, even among Trump’s critics, to give him credit as a messaging genius, or at least a messaging idiot savant—capable of intuitively choosing slogans and talking points that connect magically with voters, as demonstrated by his upset victory in 2016. But there were some factors in 2016 more important than the potency of “Make America Great Again,” including Trump’s very weak Democratic opponent. Beyond that, his political standing since winning the election has been terrible. The reason he’s casting about for socialism as a new villain is that practically nothing else he’s tried has worked.

Perhaps a concerted press from Trump about socialism will succeed where his other recent efforts have failed. The results should offer some indication of whether the current socialist moment will be as ephemeral as the “libertarian moment” of roughly 2014, or whether it’s here to stay. They will also indicate whether it’s still possible to tar an opponent as a socialist, or if Trump’s instincts there are as stuck in the past as many of his social views.